The recent mutiny in Russia has distracted attention from a more positive development for President Vladimir Putin: Ukraine’s much-anticipated summer counteroffensive hasn’t made much progress so far.
Since the counteroffensive began last month, Ukraine claims to have retaken only about 60 square miles. By comparison, a less heralded push last fall in the country’s northeast reclaimed nearly 5,000 square miles. “Ukraine is probably weeks behind where it hoped to be at this time,” said my colleague Eric Schmitt, who covers national security.
For now, Ukraine appears to be struggling against Russian forces that are better prepared than the ones they encountered in last fall’s offensive. Large minefields set up by the Russians have been especially difficult to deal with, making any Ukrainian advance risky. Western leaders are considering more aid to help Ukraine break through — a topic that will likely come up in a NATO summit, starting tomorrow. (Here’s a Times preview of the summit.)
“It has been hard going,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told my colleague David Leonhardt on Friday. “Defense has consistently been a more straightforward proposition than offense in this war, frankly, on both sides.”
To understand what’s at stake, today’s newsletter will walk through the two likely scenarios for coming months. In one, Ukraine eventually breaks Russia’s defenses. War victories, after all, often take time. In the second, less positive outcome for Ukraine, the stalemate continues, giving Putin reason to think that time is on his side.
Scenario 1: A breakthrough
Ukraine does have reason to remain cautiously optimistic. It still has months of dry, sunny weather and hard-packed ground before a rainy, muddy fall will make military advances difficult. And so far, Ukraine has not made a full push with the bulk of its troops. It has mostly prodded Russian forces with smaller strikes — trying to find weaknesses in defenses that are made up of not just minefields, but also tank traps, other obstacles and then two or three lines of dug-in soldiers.
If Ukraine finds a vulnerability in those defenses, it would then commit to a larger effort. If Ukrainian forces then break through, the rest of the Russian lines could panic and fall apart, allowing Ukraine to take back a lot more territory. All of this could play out very slowly, over weeks or months.
“American officials are growing anxious, but it is not too late,” said Julian Barnes, a Times correspondent who covers intelligence agencies. “The big push could still come.”
This scenario could look similar to Ukraine’s recapture of the southern city of Kherson last year. Ukraine spent months in the summer using smaller strikes to wear down Russian forces and exhaust their supplies around the city. Ukrainian forces moved into Kherson starting in late August, and Russia announced its retreat in November. It seemed like a sudden turn of events at the time, but it came after months of grinding work by Ukraine.
“Ukraine has yet to commit a substantial portion of its force,” Sullivan said about the current counteroffensive. “We won’t really know the extent to which Ukraine will retake territory until they commit the substantial number of forces that they have thus far held in reserve.”
Scenario 2: Russia holds on
As poorly as the first year of the invasion went for Russia, the country does seem to have learned from some of its mistakes. Last year, Russia often used one hastily built line of troops to defend a large piece of territory. Russia’s multiple defensive lines and minefields in Ukraine today are a significant improvement. “The Russians are clearly more prepared than they were before,” Eric said.
Military shipments from the U.S. and Europe are meant to help Ukraine break through such defenses. But Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, told CNN last week that advanced weapons had come too slowly, forcing him to delay the counteroffensive and giving Russian forces time to lay down more mines and fortify their defensive lines.
(The U.S. announced more support for Ukraine on Friday, including contentious cluster munitions.)
“If Ukraine doesn’t do as well as we hoped, the responsibility for that is partly going to fall on Western decision-making and its sluggishness,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
The bottom line
Ukraine’s primary goal in its counteroffensive is to retake much, if not all, of the land connecting Russian forces in the eastern region of Donbas and the southern peninsula of Crimea. In doing so, Ukrainian leaders would hope to get Russia to worry about a full defeat and negotiate a favorable peace deal.
To achieve that, Ukraine will need to take much more territory than it has so far. With months to go, it still has time to succeed. And Ukraine has surprised the world before.
Related: A retired military official uses maps to explain Ukraine’s strategy on the front lines in a video for The Wall Street Journal.
More on Ukraine
THE LATEST NEWS
Killer grass: The Times explains how Wimbledon’s tricky court surfaces leave some of the world’s best players feeling bad at tennis.
L.S.U. players: The pitcher Paul Skenes and the outfielder Dylan Crews became the first college teammates to go first and second in the M.L.B.’s draft, The Athletic reports.
Northwestern: The school’s president said he “may have erred” when he suspended the football coach Pat Fitzgerald for two weeks after hazing allegations, The Athletic writes.
Opening night: Beyoncé’s North American solo tour, her first in seven years, began this weekend in Toronto. The two-and-a-half-hour concert featured blockbuster costumes, stage design and dancing, but the real star was Beyoncé’s voice, Lindsay Zoladz writes in The Times: “Beyoncé’s endurance as a world-class performer remained the show’s raison d’être; she is the rare major pop star who prizes live vocal prowess.”